Control of Wisconsin Supreme Court at stake in most expensive judicial election in U.S. history

On April 4, Wisconsin voters will decide the ideological balance of their state supreme court, choosing between Milwaukee County Circuit Judge Janet Protasiewicz and former Justice Daniel Kelly. 

While Wisconsin’s supreme court elections are officially nonpartisan, PBS Wisconsin’s Zac Schultz wrote, “Protasiewicz and Kelly are heavily aligned with the Democratic and Republican parties, respectively.”

The winner will succeed retiring Justice Patience Roggensack, a member of the court’s current 4-3 conservative majority. If Protasiewicz wins, the court will switch to a 4-3 liberal majority. If Kelly wins, the conservative majority will remain.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Molly Beck wrote that candidates and satellite groups have spent at least $18 million in the race through the end of February. That makes this the most expensive judicial election in U.S. history, breaking a $15 million record set in a 2004 election to the Illinois Supreme Court.

That spending includes the primary campaign that got us where we are today.

Protesiewicz and Kelly advanced from a four-candidate primary on Feb. 21 with 46.5% and 24.2% of the vote, respectively. 

The other candidates included Waukesha County Circuit Judge Jennifer Dorrow, a conservative candidate, and Dane County Circuit Court Judge Everett Mitchell, a liberal candidate. Dorrow received 21.9% of the vote, and Mitchell received 7.5%.

The liberal candidates—Protasiewicz and Mitchell—received 54.0% of the primary vote, and the conservative candidates—Kelly and Dorrow—received 46.1%.

Wisconsin media has identified abortion policy, election administration, and legislative redistricting as some of the legal topics the court could address in the future. Wisconsin currently has a divided government: Democrats control the governorship, and Republicans control both legislative chambers.

Protsiewicz said, “We’re saving our democracy in the state of Wisconsin …I’m talking about the ability to vote, to have a vote that counts about women’s rights, reproductive freedoms, the fact that the 2024 presidential election results could likely come into our Supreme Court chamber, just everything people care about.”

Kelly said, “[Voters] want to have someone who has a proven public record of being faithful to the constitution and to the people of Wisconsin. And I see my record as doing that. And I think that’s what makes the difference.”

Barring any vacancies in the interim, the next supreme court election in Wisconsin will be held in 2025 when Justice Ann Walsh Bradley’s term expires. Walsh is a member of the court’s current liberal minority.

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